By Candice Richardson
The Seattle Medium
Rashad Norris is no wallflower. The Director of Community Engagement for Highline College is quick to smile and brimming with energy as he sits down to talk with me. It’s the kind of energy certain people like Norris carry naturally, one that’s often found in actors and entertainers.
“Some of my first prideful memories was being in commercials for G.I. Joe and the Transformers,” says Norris who spent the first four to five years of his life in Netherlands where his father was stationed with the Army.
“[Living there] was interesting and a great experience. Hasbro was headquartered there and my mother saw they were looking for kids to audition for toy commercials and I got the part. When we traveled to Atlanta to visit my grandmother the commercial came on and you see a little Black hand come across the screen real fast and my mom was like that was you!” he says with a laugh.
When Norris’ family moved back to the United States, and his father was stationed at Joint Base Fort Lewis/McChord, the family decided to settle in Spanaway. As a child Norris loved basketball and writing. With a desire to become a sports broadcaster it seemed Television would indeed be in his future, but his journey took a turn after starting college at University of Puget Sound (UPS) on a basketball scholarship.
“When I got to UPS I was unsure of what I really wanted to do because of the environment,” says Norris who received a B.A. in Communication with a Minor in English. “Basketball was a tool. I always wanted to go play at a big school like somewhere on TV but when I landed at UPS I viewed basketball as just a way for me to get an education.”
Having grown up in Spanaway, Norris attended schools with diverse populations from Kindergarten to 12th grade. But at UPS he was a part of the one percent of African American students on campus.
“I was in classes where I’d be one of the only Black students. I remember going to those classes feeling self-hatred for myself or for Whites because I felt dumb,” Norris says. “I remember sitting in class my freshman year and falling behind in my education and everyone telling me I was going to have to redshirt because I wasn’t prepared to move forward as a college student.”
Despite the adversity, Norris says the memory of attending college is one he’ll cherish due to the mentorship he received.
“I love talking about my mentor, who was a White male, who became my advisor,” says Norros. “He didn’t come at me as a college student. He came at me as a Black male in a college setting. He made me read the narrative of Fredrick Douglas and he wanted me to understand what it meant to have a college education and what it meant for Frederick Douglas to go through to get an education and the culture of Blacks to get an education at that time and this time now.”
That experience changed Norris’ career outlook and the former point guard began to see how he could translate his leadership skills from the basketball court to other areas in life. After graduating, he did a stint as a salesperson at Enterprise Car Rental before moving into banking where he was a manager at Wells Fargo. Nothing fulfilled him until he started working as an Athletic Director for Boys & Girls Club in Lakewood.
“I fell in love with giving back to youth,” he says.
While at Boys & Girls Club he attended Evergreen State College in Tacoma where he received his Masters in Public Administration. He then joined the staff at Fort Lewis’s Teen Contact Center where he worked with teens whose parents were at war in Iraq and at war and later became the manager for Tacoma Goodwill’s STEPS: Skills Training Employment Preparation Services Program before landing at Highline College.
“I hired Rashad as Assistant Director for Outreach in Services in 2007, and have been working with him ever since,” says Lisa Skari Vice President of Community Engagement at Highline College. “He always has ideas that are fueled by his passion, which spills over to his colleagues. I would describe him as smart, honest, and real, with a huge heart for the welfare of our youth and our communities, especially those that have been marginalized and underserved by the educational system.”
As the Director of Community Engagement, Norris says his department is the public face of the college and his division oversees institutional advancement.
“My department truly changed the game of doing outreach instead of recruitment,” says Norris. “If you look at most colleges their recruitment departments are tasked with putting butts in seats. I know that outreach and engagement takes not only more time, but consistency; so I brought that to my experience at Highline and we changed our recruitment to a more outreach engagement setting and the students I’m engaged with we stay engaged on a consistent basis. We provide programs that’s not only relevant to their culture, but their interest as well.”
Norris says this consistent engagement could see him spending two days a week with any given student attending middle school or high school throughout King County. Currently his department is partnered with Federal Way, Highline, Kent, Auburn, and Renton school districts.
“Rashad has been my mentor since I was in the 8th grade,” says Josias Jean-Pierre who met Norris while he was a student at Tyee Middle School. “When you go to a school where a majority of people teaching are not of color but are White women, a male figure is awesome but a Black male is a powerful presence, especially when you have diverse students.”
Jean-Pierre says he grew up without his father and thus Norris became a very influential father-figure to him as well. The now 24-year old says he’s followed in his mentor’s footsteps as a motivational and empowerment speaker in addition to working at Boeing Employees Credit Union.
“I’m living proof of what Rashad can do,” he says.
“He is able to engage youth and get them motivated to focus on their futures, not let the statistics define success for them,” says Skari. “The Black and Brown Male Summit is a great example of this.”
In 2011 Norris started the Black and Brown Male Summit at Highline after hearing about a similar College Convention program on the East Coast.
“I always knew this was something I wanted to do and had started to put it in place at the middle schools here first,” says Norris. “I called it HERO: Honor Education and Respect Others and I began it at Lakota Middle School in Federal Way. But I knew that I wanted to put something together for young men at the college level because there was nothing for them.”
At the start the summit faced some push back when Norris’ team began to join with high schools throughout the area. They were told the name wasn’t right, that students didn’t see color such as “Black” and “Brown” and it should be called the Minority Men’s Summit instead. They were also told students were too lazy to get up on a Saturday to attend an event such as this. That first event saw roughly 50 attendees. Since then attendance to the Black and Brown Male Summit has grown to an average of 500 to 600 students each year and has now spawned YELL: Young Educated Ladies Leading.
“We saw how the females would get excited to see the males coming back to school so amped up so now we have created YELL” Norris says.
The Black and Brown Male Summit takes place each fall while YELL takes place in the Springtime. Both summits continue to be on Saturdays.
Each summit includes workshops, leadership activities, and a keynote speaker. Past keynote speakers for the Black and Brown Male Summit have included Olympic Champion and activist John Carlos and activist, writer, and public speaker, Kevin Powell. Music artist Rocky Rivera was the keynote speaker for this year’s YELL summit.
“The number one change that we see in the students from these summits is the advocacy they have for themselves and becoming more knowledgeable and empowered about who they are as people of color,” Norris says. “Our numbers at Highline has grown as well. We’re now over 70% students of color… We really can’t put ownership solely being because of outreach, but I will tell you that our being so visual in the community, these young people talk to one another. I think our name and my department has grown a reputation where we talk a language these students can understand and the tone of it, especially at these summits, is one of love where we want to see them get better.”
In addition to his work at Highline, Norris has been on a mission to spread his message of self-empowerment and advocacy beyond the borders of the educational world and off-campus. The result of these efforts is Relevant Engagement LLC, a personal consultant business that allows him to join with other partners and programs outside of the education sector. The first such partner to sign on is Pioneer Human Services which assists people re-entering society from prison or jail as well as providing services for those overcoming substance abuse disorders and mental health issues.
“Relevant Engagement is a great program for people in terms of the work we do for youth,” says Harold Wright, Director of Youth and Young Adult Services at Pioneer.
“It’s been a joy and a great experience [working with Pioneer]. I’ve learned so much with these young people,” says Norris. “Getting them to understand the importance of emotional intelligence and having control over their emotional outbursts and be intelligent enough to make decisions that’s positive for their next steps. These young men coming out of these institutions, they truly have had time to really think about their decisions that got them there.”
“Rashad has done a nice job of providing conversation and activities around the reality of not just re-entering society but life in general,” Wright says. “In some cases these are the first time some of these young adults are reading books outside of a homework assignment.”
I think the biggest thing, when we do outcome surveys for our youth we ask what we can improve upon to make sure we’re reaching all kids, especially those of color. One of the things you always hear is Brother Norris is all right. Brother Norris helped me to understand things differently,” added Wright. “These are kids who didn’t have great track record in school who are now reading and participating. He is able to connect with them and help move them forward.”
“The biggest challenge is making sure that you’re reaching as many of these young people as you can,” says Norris. “I get wrapped up in ‘how efficient am I being?’ It’s heavy on my heart that the outreach that I do is connecting with our young people.”